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Automobile Art

From Delahayes to Duesenbergs, These Classic Cars Are Stunning Tributes to the Coachbuilder's Art
Ken Vose
From the Print Edition:
Matt Dillon, Spring 96

(continued from page 1)

The origins of custom coachbuilding can be traced back to about 1450 in Hungary, where the first reported carriage coach was built. Constructing horse-drawn coaches for the aristocracy and landed gentry, the "carriage trade" became an honored and profitable business, one often handed down from generation to generation. The profitable aspect of the trade eventually caught the eye of the powers that be, resulting in England's King Charles I introducing, in 1637, what was likely the first in a long line of taxes to be imposed on coachbuilding.

Most of the famous classic automotive coachbuilders can trace their roots to the horse-drawn era. At the beginning of the twentieth century, there were approximately 400,000 carriages in England, and virtually every large town boasted at least one coachbuilder.

The advent of the automobile opened a new world to those coachbuilders savvy enough to realize that in the future, horsepower would have an entirely different meaning. One who lacked such foresight was Alexander Henderson, president of the Institute of British Carriage Manufacturers, who commented in 1897 that, despite the motorcar's popularity, "Most people would still prefer for private use the lifelike animated appearance of well-appointed horse-traction to any dead mechanism however smoothly it glided along."

As early as 1895, French poster artists were extolling the virtues of the horseless carriage for auto expositions. One year later, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec became the first major artist to use the automobile as a subject in his lithograph, "L'Automobilist."

Those early automobiles looked so much like their immediate predecessors that they quickly became known as "horseless carriages." They would remain so until Henry Ford and his followers began to mass-produce cars that owed their designs more to mechanical and financial necessity than to any sense of aesthetics. This is not to say that Ford was unaware of the importance of the designer in the automotive equation: "Design will take more advantage of the power of the machine to go beyond what the hand can do and will give us a whole new art."

From the early 1920s to the beginning of the Second World War, the automobile began a transformation as dramatic as that of a caterpillar to a butterfly. Inexpensive cars like the Model T Ford, with its boxlike bodywork, were being turned out by the hundreds of thousands. In fact, it was mass production that helped pave the way for coachbuilding's golden age. People of wealth and position needed automobiles that complemented their lavish lifestyles. For them, the "T-square" and its automotive counterparts gave way to the type of flowing lines found on Ettore Bugatti's creations.

"The car was born with a faulty structure," observed Sergio Pininfarina, the renowned Italian coachbuilder. "In a certain sense, it was born old, let us say baroque or gothic. It was up to us to impose some kind of order."

Some say that coachbuilding, regardless of the artistry employed by the designer, is no more than a highly elevated form of craft. But few can argue that the influence of the fine arts, particularly the Futurist and Art Deco movements, is readily apparent in much of the best work, as noted by Swiss sculptor Max Bill:

"Whether they like it or not, those who create new forms succumb to the influence of modern art....Comparison between an automobile and the sculpture of its time will show how close the relationship is between works of art and the forms of useful objects."

This relationship had about it an element of "chicken and egg" when it came to who actually was influencing whom: Were the Futurists responsible for the changing aerodynamic shape of the automobile? Or had they fallen under the automobile's spell, as suggested by British artist Wyndham Lewis, who called their movement "Automobilism"?

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